Diplomatic Diary: Hidden Agenda?

What is France up to? Why is Paris trying so hard to derail Washington's war? Where did all those secret French diplomatic plans come from? And just what is President Jacques Chirac's game?

From the Bush administration's point of view, those questions are among the most perplexing--and surprising--in the final weeks of its diplomacy before war in Iraq. France has emerged to play more than just its traditional role of thorn-in-the-American-side. Over the last month, France has become the commander-in-chief of the Global Alliance against President George W. Bush, actively agitating to block the U.S. president's best-laid plans for war.

That has come as a rude awakening for the Bush administration. Over the last year, senior officials have taken a largely generous view of French tactics. Chirac was the first foreign leader to meet with President-elect Bush in Washington (at a private meeting in the French Embassy), and Bush's aides always hoped for a close relationship with a fellow right-of-center leader. It was Chirac again who was the first foreign leader to visit Bush after the Sept. 11 attacks, touring Ground Zero in that long-lost era when Parisian newspapers declared: "We are all Americans now."

Even the personal chemistry between the two Presidents was good. Chirac is often lampooned back home as a backslapping simpleton--not unlike the worst caricatures of Bush. Both leaders enjoy a direct, straight-talking relationship, and both sides said relations between them were warm.

That helped the Bush administration cope with French criticism last year. When the old (left-of-center) French government started to bleat about American power, the Bush administration found it easy to brush such criticism aside. In the weeks after Bush minted the phrase "axis of evil", French ministers dismissed U.S. foreign policy as simplistic and dangerous. Secretary of State Colin Powell rebuked the French foreign minister at the time, ridiculing him for having an attack of "the vapors." Still, the Bush White House and State Department insisted that relations were just wonderful behind the scenes and between the two presidents. Chirac, they said, is still on our side.

That positive view was only boosted by comparisons with Germany. As Gerhard Schroder campaigned on an openly anti-American platform for his own reelection last fall, White House officials were furious. Unlike the Germans, the French were always supportive in the end--in spite of the odd criticism.

So when Chirac and his Gaullist party swept the Socialists out of government last year, senior U.S. officials made no secret of their hope and belief that things could only get better. They didn't. In fact, they got worse. Schroder's opposition to war could easily be blamed on his cheap electioneering. But Chirac has just won re-election, so why does he take such a hard line against U.S. policy?

That's why U.S. officials--and the media--have suggested all sorts of motives for the French blockade. First and foremost, they say that it's just because the French want to protect their oil interests in Iraq. That would be a nice argument if it were true. In fact, the only serious world player to sign an oil contract with Saddam since the gulf war is Russia--which, not by chance, also holds the bulk of contracts supplying Iraq with humanitarian goods under the U.N.'s sanctions.

What else explains the French position? Well you could just dismiss the whole thing as anti-Americanism (or even anti-Angloism if you count the Brits alongside the Americans). And there may be some basis for thinking Chirac is enjoying the sight of Tony Blair's discomfort. Chirac's opposition to war has helped him overtake Blair in the horserace to become Europe's leading elder statesman (and possibly the first man to hold a future, soon-to-be-created position of President of the European Union).

Yet there is another, simpler explanation--one that the Bush administration is finding it hard to swallow: Chirac just doesn't believe that moving rapidly to war in Iraq is the right thing to do. "We do think that war is a last resort," one senior French official told me. "War is dangerous, and war needs to be decided by international consensus. The unity of the U.N. Security Council is important because of the day after Saddam, and because of the consequences of war. So if it takes more time to go to war, it's worth it."

Of course, all of those concerns can have a more cynical explanation than philosophical principles and international law. France's largest minority group is its hugely disaffected and downtrodden North Africans, who are mostly Muslim. France's foreign policy has always been skewed towards those Arab countries that once formed part of its sphere of influence. For both reasons, Paris may be thinking of its self-interest.

Moreover, France's commitment to the United Nations could just be an attempt to tie down what French intellectuals have called the American "hyperpower." America's never-ending rise to power has deeply shaken the confidence of ex-colonial powers like France, turning them into small bit players on the world's stage.

Administration officials have for weeks hinted, suggested and even predicted that the French will ultimately climb on board their juggernaut to war. Yet those same officials concede they have received no indications--publicly or privately--that the French are getting ready to cave. Now that Chirac is openly campaigning with the Germans and Russians for an alternative approach--beefed up (and possibly armed) inspectors in Iraq--it's increasingly hard for the Bush administration to maintain that belief in future French support.

It's not as if the French are entirely pure of heart. But they could still be justified in their fears about the impact of war--both on the region and inside the U.N. The best way for Washington to deal with Paris--and win the French over--is not to spin extravagant stories about Chirac's "real" intentions. It's to win the debate, frustrating though it may be, about why weapons of mass destruction are the greatest threat facing mankind--and why the civilized world needs to act now to disarm at least one of the rogue states that possess them.

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